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Couple with Alzheimer's disease exercising in a gym.

Is exercise the best way to prevent Alzheimer's disease?

There are many ways you can help keep your brain healthy, but one of the most beneficial activities is exercise.

That’s because exercise has been shown to bolster brain function in more ways than one, says Joel Hardwick, ACSM EP-C, EIM2, an exercise physiologist at Piedmont Atlanta Fitness Center. Hardwick is also a Brain Health Ambassador through the Academy for Brain Health and Performance.

There’s no surefire way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, but making exercise a lifelong commitment can sharpen your mind and encourage continued development.

“What you’re doing with exercise,” Hardwick explains, “is creating the most optimal environment for your brain to grow.”

Exercise contributes to brain growth in two primary ways: neuroplasticity and neurogenesis.

Exercise helps create new brain cells

Neuroplasticity is “essentially the idea that your brain can change,” Hardwick explains. For decades, he says, people thought all you could do was lose brain cells, but that turned out to be untrue.

“Not only can you grow more, but you can change them and form different neural pathways,” he explains.

This is what neuroplasticity means. It helps preserve brain function, grow new brain cells and keep people mentally engaged longer in life, Hardwick says.

Exercise primes the brain for this growth by boosting levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which Hardwick likens to a “Miracle-Gro” for the brain.

Other activities promote brain health, too. When you do anything that’s mentally stimulating, such as a crossword puzzle or a difficult math problem, you’re helping preserve cognitive function.

However, exercise has other positive brain effects that can’t be found elsewhere.  

The secret power of exercise

In addition to promoting neuroplasticity, working out also plays a role in neurogenesis, Hardwick says.

Neurogenesis allows for the formation of new blood vessels in your brain. As you move your body, it pumps more blood, promoting increased flow to your brain over time.

“You’re creating a stimulus to get that blood to your brain,” Hardwick says.

If you’ve created new brain cells through neuroplasticity, your body must be able to fuel and sustain them. When your brain has stronger blood flow, the risk of cognitive decline decreases.

“Exercise fills the gaps,” Hardwick says.

How to start an exercise program

Want to begin a new workout routine? You can start small, Hardwick says. As long as you’re moving, you’re headed in the right direction.

He recommends focusing on aerobic training, although resistance training has been shown to have brain benefits too. Hardwick also encourages people to try “exergaming,” which combines performing a mentally stimulating task (like a video game) while working out on a machine.

You don’t have to stay in the gym, either. Take a walk through nature and pay attention to your surroundings as you go. When you smell flowers and listen to insects, you’re being mindful of your environment, and that in itself is mental engagement. 

“Everything helps,” Hardwick says.

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